In February, anti-racism protesters marched the streets of Grosse Pointe Park, roiled by a symbol of overt bigotry and white supremacy targeting the family of one of their Black neighbors. JeDonna Dinges was living in the city for 11 years before her neighbor displayed a Ku Klux Klan flag in full view of her home.
“For the most part, everybody’s pretty friendly,” Dinges tells WDET. “Grosse Pointe Park has had its fair share of racially charged incidents. There have been some things that have happened in the schools, some things that happened with the police department. Some things that happened after Trump was elected.”
“But nothing as significant as what we’re dealing with right now,” adds the owner of Margaux and Max, a boutique in Ferndale.
Earlier this year, Dinges found a full gas can in her recycling bin. Suspecting her 31-year-old neighbor, Dinges reported the incident to the Grosse Pointe Park police, who dismissed the incident shortly after the call. Weeks later, she could see the KKK flag from the side of her home, displayed prominently to cover her neighbor’s window. The red flag has a white circle in which the words “Indivisible Empire, Ku Klux Klan” surround a blood drop cross, an active hate symbol according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“For the past century, the primary symbol related to Ku Klux Klan groups (other than Klan robes themselves) is what Klan members may call the MIOAK (an acronym for ‘Mystic Insignia of a Klansman,’)” the ADL states.
“Many Klansmen came to believe that their symbol was a cross and that the ‘blood drop’ represented blood shed to protect the white race.”
The Klan is one of the longest enduring white-supremacist groups in the United States, emerging after the Civil War, with a long-chronicled history of murder and brutalization of Black Americans. The group is also responsible for attacks against Jews, immigrants and LGBTQ people.
Grosse Pointers React
The display of the KKK flag drew the condemnation of elected officials, community groups and residents, who rallied in support of the Dinges family, pointing to other racial deficiencies in the five Grosse Pointe communities.
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, but the difference is this time, more than just Black people felt like it was unacceptable,” State Senator Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) said at a February 21 press conference.
“The only way these things will change is when we all recognize that our laws have to change,” he added.
Grosse Pointe Park has a population of about 11,050 and is 86% white and 8% African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of Black Grosse Pointe Park residents has declined 2.5% between 2010 and 2019, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
“If there had been someone Black working in that police department, maybe they could have imparted some wisdom. Maybe some historical significance around a Black person finding gasoline on their property and then four weeks later, finding a Klan flag. Those two things go together.” –- JeDonna Dinges
Young Black people have accounted for most of Grosse Pointe Park’s arrests in the last decade. African Americans were arrested for 63% of the city’s 164 property crimes in 2019, according to the incident-based reporting from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over the last three years, most offenders were between 10 and 19 years old.
“Since the city was founded in 1950 – 71 years ago – there has never been a Black or brown person patrolling the streets of Grosse Pointe Park,” said Greg Bowens, a writer and co-founder of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch, in February. “These policies that have developed over time have had the effect of discriminating against traditionally marginalized Black and brown people and women.”
Grosse Pointe Park is considering candidates to direct the city’s public safety department, which includes the police and fire departments. Bowens suggested revising the city’s police hiring practices to follow Detroit’s qualification standards, which would lower the minimum age from 21 to 18 years old. Grosse Pointe Park also requires officers to have an associate’s degree and states a preference for applicants who have other emergency service licenses.
“I think it’s time that the status quo changes,” Bowens said.
Free Speech in Michigan
The incident is a stress test for hate speech in Michigan and the enduring protection of the First Amendment. Prosecutors in Wayne County declined to pursue the case.
“The KKK flag, while intending to be visible to Ms. Dinges, was hanging inside of her neighbor’s house. We could not even begin to charge Ethnic Intimidation under current Michigan law,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement.
“There is absolutely no question that what happened to Ms. Dinges was despicable, traumatizing, and completely unacceptable … I strongly encourage the Michigan Legislature to look, revise, and create laws to protect citizens from this kind of horrible conduct.”
While the decision upset JeDonna Dinges, she’s been turning her attention to other injustices in Michigan, hoping that her experience will encourage others to speak out against their own discrimination.
“I saw this story about this young lady living in Livingston County who is 18 years old, a senior in high school, who is being terrorized at school because she is a Black girl in a predominately white neighborhood,” Dinges explained. “I’m glad that she finally spoke up. I ended up calling the Michigan Department of Civil Rights when I heard about the case. It wasn’t on their radar.”
“Because this happened to me, they knew who I was. If this gives me a voice to be able to help somebody else, then it’s worth it.”
Listen: JeDonna Dinges talks about the change that needs to happen at the local and legislative levels.
WDET’s Eli Newman spoke with JeDonna Dinges to talk about the incident. Read excerpts, edited for clarity, below:
Newman: When did you start to notice your neighbor’s behavior?
Dinges: I would characterize him as anti-social. We knew that there was something really off and dangerous about him about five or six years ago. He went out on his back porch and had a gun and began to shoot the gun into the air, firing multiple rounds. Of course, I called 911. The police dispatcher answered and told me that I was mistaken and that I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing, that the gunshots were coming from Detroit. And I said, “No, it’s my neighbor next door.”
In January, my ex-husband goes out to put the recycling in the bin and finds a gas can, smells it, realizes it’s [full of] gas, then we call the police. The police come out. And they asked me, “How did I know how it got there?” I told them I did not. They made a couple of, what I think are insane assertions. Someone had to place it there. And they asked me if I had any suspicions. I told them, I thought that it was a neighbor next door. But they ended up suggesting that I get a camera. So we put the camera there and about four weeks later, my ex-husband goes outside to take the trash out and sees the flag in the window and comes in and tells me there’s a Klan flag in the window.
And what did you take the displaying of the KKK flag to mean?
“That I can kill you. I can harm you. I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who has lynched. An organization that is terrorized and killed hundreds of Black people throughout history.” I took it as a threat.
Because of the way that the Grosse Pointe Park Police Department handled the situation with the gas can I did not feel confident that they were going to do anything about the flag. So I called the attorney general’s office and they told me there was nothing that they could do because of his First Amendment rights. And then I call the FBI and they said they would definitely view this as an act of ethnic intimidation. But then they began to ask me if he had yelled a racial slur to me or anything else and I told him that he had not. And they said once it escalates, call us back, which I thought again, was ridiculous. Do I have to be harmed before anyone would care? I just became discouraged. But I was furious and scared. So I posted on social media, I posted a picture of the flag and did a Facebook post and told my friends on Facebook that my neighbor put up a Klan flag in the window. And people started to comment like crazy and people were really upset. He took the flag down. And I knew the bigger picture. Yes, it was down, but we needed to address why he felt so comfortable. Why anybody would own a Klan flag in 2021?
It strikes me because despite having your neighbors and the community rally behind you on this issue, we did see that recently Kym Worthy, the Wayne County Prosecutor, stating that she wouldn’t proceed with prosecuting this case, that it didn’t meet the threshold of the ethnic intimidation statute here in Michigan. I’m wondering what you felt when you heard that news.
I was really upset that he wouldn’t be prosecuted. But of course, I understood because the prosecutor’s office was very forthcoming. They said, “Ms. Dinges, it’s going to be tough for us to prove all these elements because he did not threaten you, he did not call you a slur, he did not put up a sign that says ‘I’m going to kill you.’ He didn’t do any of that stuff. They felt like three elements had been met. And this fourth element had not been.
To be clear, that fourth element was?
“Contact.” If he had put the Klan black flag on my property, that would have been contact. If he had defaced my property or damaged my car or flattened a tire or something like that or yelled a threat at me or yelled a racial slur to me, that would have been contact.
What’s really sticking with me hearing about this story is these distinctions between free speech and what constitutes a threat. And I’m wondering if you were writing a law to address this kind of issue, what do you think needs to be included in the future?
I think the law needs to be amended because when this law was written, everybody wasn’t walking around with a cell phone. Everybody wasn’t walking around with a camera in their pocket. So there may be pieces of that that need to be included. Or text messages exchanged or was there electronic communication because we need to look at ensuring that this law has teeth so that people can be held accountable. A Klu Klux Klan flag … my ex-husband is Caucasian. That flag was not put there to terrorize him. It was there to terrorize me because I am a Black person. It was there to terrorize my daughter because she’s a Black person. He was not putting it in the front of his house where any person driving by would see it. It was put there to terrorize me and my daughter.
You had mentioned that since living in Grosse Pointe Park, while you hadn’t necessarily experienced overt racism to this degree, there has been a history of microaggressions or racially-tinged incidents, or however you might phrase it. What would you like to see happen more local to you?
We have to have a diverse police department. When the police department came out for the gasoline incident, if there had been someone Black working in that police department, even as an administrative assistant, maybe they could have imparted some wisdom and maybe some historical significance around a Black person finding gasoline on their property that they did not place there and then four weeks later, finding a Klan flag, because those two things go together. There has to be diversity in this community.